The “China Class”Steven Lieberman
Last week one of your fellow readers forwarded me an essay by Lee Smith in Tablet Mag called The Thirty Tyrants. (Thank you, Trevor, for the find… I owe you one!)
I want to take the time in this space to provide a brief synopsis of this excellent essay and then offer some thoughts. I highly encourage you to read the entire work by Mr. Smith, but be warned it is not a light “two-minute” read; it is something that should be read carefully, and pondered. Make a pot of coffee and give yourself an hour. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/the-thirty-tyrants
Mr. Smith begins with an explanation of who the “Thirty Tyrants” originally were, and how history, maybe while not exactly repeating itself… is running on a parallel track.
In 404 BCE, Sparta found itself on the winning side of its 27-year war against Athens. This created a bit of a conundrum for Sparta. Direct control would have been administratively problematic, so instead they employed a more nuanced strategy: Instill 30 “Pro Sparta” leaders into power, allow them to demolish the institutions of democracy in Athens, and run the city-state essentially as a dictatorship with a cemented alliance and deference to Sparta.
The ruling elite of this “new” Athens were elevated members of the citizenry who had a fundamental animus towards democracy in general. These Athenian men (yes… they were “men”) were enamored with the social stratification of Sparta and sought to emulate something similar in Athens. (Their admiration of that social stratification came from an inherent belief that they would be at the top of the column. Had they assumed they would be occupying a lower rung, they may have not been so enchanted with the idea.) Regardless, these were “leaders” who looked at the general population of Athens as a nuisance at best, and one that sorely needed to be brought to heel. Sparta was simply a model, and one that could give them leverage to do this.
Fast fowarding, Mr. Smith looks at the historic relationship between China and the United States, really beginning with Henry Kissinger’s work to “open up” China to the West beginning during the Nixon Administration.
So… who are these “tyrants” amongst us?
Mr. Smith interviewed Thomas Friedman, The New York Times columnist, about an article he wrote during the Obama administration. In that article Mr. Friedman references the moment the American Elite “decided that democracy wasn’t working for them. Blaming the Republican Party for preventing them from running roughshod over the American public, they migrated to the Democratic Party in the hopes of strengthening the relationships that were making them rich.”
This American Elite pushed for globalization. Part of that was developing relationships with China for commercial gain. These relationships were completely dependent on Chinese Government blessing and, often times, these commercial relationships were with the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) itself. These American Elite not only began seeing China as a colleague, but in many ways a working model that should be emulated back at home.
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President Trump seriously upset the apple cart. Globalism and deference to Chinese expansionism was on the rise. These American Elite were becoming more and more ingrained and reliant on Chinese largess, then President Trump and his message of American Nationalism, coupled with an anti-globalist populism, threatened to derail the whole scheme.
As Mr. Smith notes, “A decade ago, no one would’ve put NBA superstar LeBron James and Apple CEO Tim Cook in the same family album, but here they are now, linked by their fantastic wealth owing to cheap Chinese manufacturing (Nike sneakers, iPhones, etc.) and a growing Chinese consumer market. The NBA’s $1.5 billion contract with digital service provider Tencent made the Chinese firm the league’s biggest partner outside America. In gratitude, these two-way ambassadors shared the wisdom of the Chinese Communist Party with their ignorant countrymen. After an NBA executive tweeted in defense of Hong Kong dissidents, social justice activist King LeBron told Americans to watch their tongues. “Even though yes, we do have freedom of speech,” said James, “it can be a lot of negative that comes with it.”
With the election of President Biden there has been a rush to eradicate the misguided policies that almost led to a US-Sino decoupling. The Chinese are not passive observers of this. They are, as Sparta was… essentially organizers of the putsch to ensure they can maintain a firm hold on what they perceive as their client state.
The “China Class”, those individuals and institutions that have seen their wealth and status greatly enhanced by their Chinese patrons, have sought to institute reforms that are wildly undemocratic. Thought or philosophy that contradicts collectivist orthodoxy has been marginalized as extremist at best, racist at worst. Predictive institutional acquiescence to Chinese interests have taken precedence to the somewhat un-predictive nature of an American electorate who puts individual rights first, and American foreign policy oriented towards globalism second. Technocrats have sought to create parameters to what can and cannot be published, and even revulsion to the extreme human rights abuses by China towards the Weigers has been dismissed by President Biden as “cultural differences”. (Yes… now, apparently, if you are appalled by genocide at the hands of our Chinese masters, you are unenlightened and, of course… “racist”.)
Mr. Smith does point out that the Thirty Tyrants (our modern day “China Class”) only had a brief period on the Greek stage. After a few months, a disgusted and abused citizenry had them rounded up and executed.
While I found Mr. Smith’s article both fascinating and thought provoking, I was sad he did not expand upon the long-term viability of the Chinese model. Many in European and American Intelligentsia take it as a foregone conclusion that China is ascendant and poised to dominate and guide the world into the twenty-first century, having dispensed with the quaint and dated idea of democracy.
I do not share this view.
Quite the contrary. I see China’s days as numbered.
One of our instructors at Artemis pointed out something to me the other day when we were discussing this. China has spent a massive amount of wealth on internal controls of its population. From coercive state-sponsored apparatchiks governing even the most mundane aspects of rural life, to huge state-controlled prisons and “re-education” camps for the purposes of separating refuseniks from the population. As Scott, our instructor, said, this is “first” evidence that its model is not working.
In my mind there is a bigger threat to Chinese regional, or even global, hegemony: purpose.
I believe that liberal democracy, as embodied in our Constitution, is the purpose of the United States. The State exists to protect individual liberty. It is not there to pursue riches around the globe. It is not there to even direct industry towards a certain goal. Its power emanates from The People, and is there to secure the rights of the individual against the tyranny of the majority.
China does not share that belief, yet the Chinese citizens do. We saw this in 1989 in Tiananmen Square. We have seen this manifest in Hong Kong; we see it in Western China with the Weigers, and we see it in Southern China with the Tibetans. (Just this week China felt it was necessary to officially declare that the Communist Party of China is ultimately the one that will decide who the Dali Lama will reincarnate into.)
A country that must expend this amount of time and energy on controlling its own population is destined to fail. History is very, very unkind to tyrants, be they Asian, African, European… or even American.